Building Edtech in India: Go Slow or Go Home
Talk about a true case of the little guy cleaning up the big guy’s mess.
For the past two years, Zaya co-founder and CEO Neil D’Souza has triumphed over astonishing odds in his mission to deliver digital educational resources to developing regions. He's piped digital books to nomadic herders in remote Mongolia and Khan Academy videos to orphanages in Indonesia.
Now his sights are set on India, beginning with his hometown, Mumbai. But first he must overcome the pessimism in the wake of the muddle created by Educomp, India’s largest edtech company.
“There’s a lot of skepticism in India about education technology. Teachers and schools has seen so many attempts fail in the last eight, ten years,” says D’Souza.
He’s determined to make a difference. In January 2012, D’Souza, a former Cisco engineer, set up his headquarter in Mumbai to implement and scale affordable blended learning labs in schools and tutoring centers. All the equipment required fits neatly in a backpack. For roughly $3,000, the ZayaLabKit comes with Aakash tablets, earphones, speakers, a projector, a battery pack and most importantly, the ClassCloud, the server that delivers learning content, assessments, and a learning management system to the tablets in a local intranet network.
But educators, entrepreneurs and investors in India have learned that technology doesn’t always deliver results.
A recent report on the uses of edtech in affordable private schools in Hyderabad found that “many school leaders and teachers are unaware of how to use technology to its full capacity,” and as a result “techno-classes and computers [are] often used minimally or not at all.”
This was the case for Educomp, the country’s largest provider of hardware and digital technologies for schools. In 2003, it introduced the Smart Class solution, a package of interactive whiteboards and digital resources installed in over 14,000 schools around the country.
In April 2013, Forbes India uncovered serious problems underlying this rapid growth. Among them: the company committed large capital investments upfront by installing whiteboards and other hardware that went unused. Many never paid for support and services. Without this revenue, the company defaulted on paying some employees for months and recently let go of 3,500. This downsizing meant that some paying customers received lackluster service, and 200 of them recently filed a lawsuit against the company.
One analyst who has watched Educomp closely believes the Smart Class strategy “was built on a very hairy concept that simply putting multimedia hardware in front of teachers and students would work.” He estimates that nearly 10,000 schools currently have inoperable Educomp hardware. “One of the biggest negative legacies that Educomp will leave,” he says, “is that public investors and schools will be very wary and pessimistic about education technology.”
By contrast, D'Souza believes that building real change in India's education system will take long and patient work. For the past two years, he's been living that principle as he prototyped his mobile “Education Hotspots” in rural regions to prove the technology could deliver Khan Academy videos where little or no Internet infrastructure existed. His experiences taught him that proper training was just as crucial as the technology itself.
His customers are chosen carefully to ensure that teachers are willing to adopt not just new technology, but even new ways of teaching and managing a classroom. Every Zaya teacher undergoes a multi-day orientation on properly setting up and managing the ZayaLabKit and also learn about blended learning models in U.S. schools like KIPP and Rocketship. Weekly check-ins from company staff provide ongoing support.
Zaya currently runs ten labs: Six are set up in schools run by Teach for India in Mumbai and Pune, three are after-school programs in the suburbs outside Mumbai, and one is on the second floor of the Zaya office. Each lab operates on a rotational model where students split time between peer-to-peer group work, interacting with the teacher and working on tablets. Altogether, the labs serve about 600 students.
It’s a far cry from the thousands of schools where Educomp hoped to operate. But even with this modest number, Zaya believes it can do one thing that other Indian edtech companies have neglected: show improvements in students’ learning gains.
The Zaya tablets come with assessments that periodically measures students’ math and reading skills. Based on their performance, the system assigns them to different learning tracks (below, at, or above grade level) where they receive instruction based on their needs. As students work through the 600+ math lessons and books from companies like CK12 Braingenie and MangoReader, progress and performance are tracked and analyzed.
It’s still early days and initial results won’t be available until the end of the year. The goal for 2014 is to have 30 labs around the country, a number that D’Souza believes will offer a large enough sample size to measure aggregate learning outcomes.
“Our team [of 15] is well aware that it will take some time for us to prove holistic change. We will grow at a more careful pace while collecting data and refining our process,” says D’Souza.
In the meantime, financial sustainability is an issue for Zaya. So far, parents of students in the after-school labs pay 150-200 Rupees (U.S. $2 to $3) per month, and the company charges schools $2,000 per year for in-school labs. It’s currently not enough to cover operational costs, which D’Souza says can be as high as $10,000 a year for each lab. He’s reached out to local companies, investors and philanthropists for support, and so far has eight sponsors pledged for 2014.
The rest of the world is watching, too. Back in 2011--when D’Souza first started--he took second prize in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Global Education Challenge. This year he was a runner-up at the 2013 Gratitude Awards and was chosen as an Echoing Green Fellow in June. He’s also received encouraging signs from investors in the U.S. and India as he goes about raising institutional capital for Zaya. “These impact investors claim to be very patient,” says D’Souza. “I’ll find out in two years how patient they are.”
Patience from investors is a rare quality indeed. But given what happened to India’s biggest and fast-growing edtech company, getting real learning results may well be worth the wait.